Cheyenne Madonna by Eddie Chuculate

The first book by Institute of American Indian Arts alumnus and Stegner Fellow Eddie Chuculate is a novel-in-stories that tackles an impressive number of themes while never straying far from the life of its main character, Jordan Coolwater. Jordan appears in all but the first piece, “Galveston Bay, 1826,” a tone-setting tale about four Indian men on a road trip. Chuculate brilliantly works the tension between the potential for cliché and the reality of the narrative; Old Bull, Red Moon, Sandman, and Whiteshield share many of the troubles and drives of modern men. Set against the rest of the book, it is an origin story—a context for comparison when faced with the question Chuculate ultimately poses: What has become of us? 

When we meet Jordan in “YoYo,” he is living with his grandparents, wiling away the summer days before seventh grade. He is mesmerized by his new neighbor, Yolanda, who is two years older, black, and in possession of an unnerving charisma. Within their friendship, Chuculate explores the power dynamics between Jordan and the rest of the world and begins to look at relationships between Indians and blacks in Oklahoma, a topic that recurs in several stories. Chuculate is forthright in his treatment of race and prejudice, as well as socioeconomics, alcoholism, and abuse. Among his many strengths is his facility with dialect, a tricky issue for even the most experienced author. It’s easy to write speech patterns that are based on broad assumptions rather than individual people, and even easier to mistake accents or regionalisms for characterization. In this passage, Chuculate writes: 

“My grandma be havin’ some Creek off in her, but Pops said I ain’t got no Indian,” YoYo said. She held her arm out in front of her. “See, if I had some Indian off in me I’d be light like you.” Her arm was darker than his but not exactly black, Jordan thought. Blackern’ a charcoal grill, he’d heard Grandpa describe his friend Mr. Jones. “Uncle Rodney say Indians got some dog off in them ‘cause they be eating dogs but I don’t believe his crazy ass.” She paused. “You folks don't eat no dog, do you?” 

Dialect isn't a trick here; YoYo’s verbal quirkiness enhances her charm and makes her irresistible to Jordan (and the reader). Jordan falls under the sway of many smooth talkers, and though he becomes a bit of a cipher from time to time, it is never a mystery why he is so willing to lose himself to other people. Alcohol, the downfall of nearly every character in Cheyenne Madonna, seeps into the stories slowly at first and then flows freely as Jordan reaches the age of majority. Everyone drinks, most notably the men in his life, a collection of wandering uncles who pop in and out of his childhood like so many hit-or-miss fathers, there for a day or two and then gone without a goodbye. Jordan’s real father is the title character in “Dear Shorty,” the book’s longest piece and deepest foray into Jordan’s inner world. Shorty is an alcoholic musician in Tulsa, where he lives mostly on the streets though he isn’t homeless—he simply prefers to be walking distance from the liquor store instead of outside of town in his well-maintained Cherokee Housing Authority home. Jordan’s own struggles with addiction, women, and the law grow more pronounced in each story, as do the themes of cultural and personal alienation. Whenever the possibility of love presents itself, whether romantic or familial, Jordan leans into it, even when it means subverting his own interests as an artist. Painting and sculpting always come second to benders, and hangovers can last for days, even weeks. 

In “Under the Red Star of Mars,” Jordan has grown from angry young man to famous Indian artist, recently transplanted from Santa Fe back to Tulsa. But this isn’t Jordan’s story, it's Lisa’s, a runaway woman from Oklahoma City who has made a new life for herself. Though we don't know it yet, this marks a turning point for Jordan, who is still trying to find out what kind of man he is or can be. The title story brings about resolution, though very few happy endings. In the final pages, as Jordan faces a new tragedy, the underground current of the stories breaks the surface: “He couldn't bring himself to draw another Indian on a galloping horse plunging a spear into a buffalo’s hump, or sitting cross-legged on a blanket stoically smoking a peace pipe or blowing a goddamned flute.” 

Chuculate presents a profound disconnect between the mythology of Indian art and the present-day reality of Indian artists, who rarely get to be artists without the cultural qualifier. He also lays bare the effects of widespread multigenerational addiction without making excuses for the way his characters treat each other. There are no saints in here, and no demons, either. Cheyenne Madonna is a fantastic debut.  

Black Sparrow Books, 143 pages

Originally published in Pasatiempo on 08/20/2010